Carolina Railhawks

July 17, 2013

DeCock: Once nearly extinct, RailHawks now a model franchise

Despite recent disappointments on the field, the Carolina RailHawks have grown into one of the NASL’s model franchises as the league pursues rapid expansion.

The Carolina RailHawks have a month off before they start the NASL’s fall half-season, and after a tough couple of weeks, there’s no question they need the break.

They blew not one but two chances to win the league’s first-half title, which also would have meant hosting the championship match in November. They crashed out of the U.S. Open Cup in the process, after resting starters in a quarterfinal loss at MLS team Real Salt Lake to concentrate on the league. And a lucrative friendly with Mexican league team Puebla at WakeMed Soccer Park last Saturday was indefinitely postponed because a volcanic eruption kept the team from leaving Mexico.

Still, for a franchise that not long ago had its mascot and trademark up for auction on eBay, this is nothing. Despite the recent blemishes on an otherwise sterling summer campaign, the RailHawks have become one of the rapidly growing NASL’s model franchises.

“Everything is very fundamentally sound,” NASL commissioner Bill Peterson said. “The club continues to grow its attendance and the following. It’s a great club in our league. I think they’ve done an amazing job the last two years”

Since the RailHawks nearly folded in January 2011, quite a bit has changed for the soccer team, which is in the midst of its seventh season at WakeMed, although more change may be coming. Traffic Sports, which saved the RailHawks from dissolution three winters ago when their locally based owners bailed out, owns three NASL teams and is going to have to divest itself from two of them eventually.

The RailHawks may be the most attractive proposition of the three. Team president Curt Johnson said he has frequent conversations with potential local investors, but both he and Peterson maintain there’s no time pressure.

“The league was fortunate (Traffic) was able to step in and sustain it,” Peterson said. “They did that because they believe in the area and professional soccer in this area. They felt they could build a strong club and they’re on their way to doing that. But it’s never been their plan or anyone else’s plan to manage multiple teams. … There’s no deadline. No timetable.”

The New York Cosmos will join in August for the fall half of the schedule, giving the NASL eight teams. The league will have 11 next season with the addition of franchises in Virginia, Ottawa and Indianapolis and the goal is 18 by 2018, Peterson said, with Oklahoma City potentially the first of several cities in line to join in 2015.

One of Peterson’s goals for the league is participating in what he calls the “global soccer economy” – essentially, making a profit by finding young or overlooked players, giving them a chance to play and selling them to bigger clubs. It’s part of his pitch to prospective new owners, but it’s always been a part of the RailHawks’ business model.

The team recently collected an additional fee when former defender Brad Rusin, who the RailHawks sold to a Danish club, was sold to Vancouver (MLS) to rejoin former RailHawks coach Martin Rennie. Many of their current players were signed with an eye to future sales as well as their performance on the field – which remains a point of pride despite the recent disappointments.

“We’ve been knocking at the door the last three or four years, even before we got here, and other than the regular-season title in 2011, we’ve fallen a bit short,” Johnson said. “If you look across all sports, teams that are continually competitive like that do eventually break through.”

As NASL undergoes rapid expansion, the RailHawks are setting the tone not just by what they have done, but how they have done it. The franchise has stabilized, now results on the field need to follow.

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